The world is facing its second La Nina in a row this year and, despite forecasts for moderate weather, Pacific nations and territories are staying alert.

As in Hawaii, seasonal weather patterns have a profound effect on Pacific nations. Rainfall and seasonal hurricanes not only have widespread consequences for vulnerable Pacific communities but can worsen existing issues.

Integral to weather patterns is the El Nino/Southern Oscillation, a cyclical weather phenomenon originating in the equatorial Pacific, with meteorological ramifications from Africa to North America.

The extremes of ENSO, called either La Nina or El Nino, are characterized by the cooling or warming of ocean surfaces and winds. The resultant meteorological patterns dictate seasonal rains and hurricanes.

Cyclone Pam, which rolled through the Pacific in March 2015, wrought havoc upon all the countries it touched, especially Vanuatu. Graham Crumb/ Wikimedia Commons/2015

This year’s La Nina — which is typically followed by a neutral or El Nino period — means a wetter season for the southwest Pacific and heralds droughts in other areas. Fewer tropical cyclones and typhoons are expected throughout the region.

Pacific Consequences

Forecasting rainfall is important for Pacific nations and territories, especially atolls with shallow water tables, according to University of Hawaii assistant professor Malte Stuecker.

During La Nina periods, trade winds push warmer surface waters westward, allowing cooler waters to rise to the surface in the east. That can mean hot and dry weather for the east, and wetter weather for the west.

Countries such as Kiribati, Nauru and Tuvalu — atoll nations — may experience below-normal rainfall this year, which will heavily influence the availability of water.

During El Nino periods, slightly warmer water can cause seawater to impinge on land in these atoll nations, leading to groundwater salinization.

Both El Nino and La Nina threaten already tenuous food security, with water for sparse crops and human consumption having to be rationed further, Stuecker said. Changing sea temperatures also influence fish behavior, changing the availability of certain fish stocks.

“There’s a very clear link to your daily experience (in the Pacific Islands),” Stuecker said. “In a way, I think people are far more aware.”

Though Pacific Islanders may be more aware of the nuances of weather, preparing for it is a different matter. And that brings up the question of forecasting.

Preparing For Disaster

Given the frequency of seasonal weather events in the Pacific — influenced by ENSO — Guam and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands have coordinated civil defense protocols that include mass shelters for those in substandard housing. But this is not the case for many independent nations, who rely upon nongovernmental organizations and foreign assistance.

And though this year’s La Nina is expected to bring a milder season with average rainfall, it is not cause for complacency, according to Marcus Landon Aydlett, National Weather Service warning coordination meteorologist.

“It takes one (hurricane) to make a bad year. That’s something I tell people always,” he said.

Aydlett — whose office also serves Palau, the Federated States of Micronesia and the Republic of the Marshall Islands — is part of a wider team that coordinates emergency services for seasonal hurricanes.

La Nina is expected to deliver more rain to the southwest Pacific. And considering the world’s top three disaster-prone nations are in the area, the weather is continually monitored.

This map shows the tracks of all tropical cyclones which formed worldwide from 1985 to 2005; many occurred in the Pacific during El Nino and La Nina periods. Wikimedia Commons

In Vanuatu, the most at-risk nation according to 2021’s WorldRiskReport, heavy rainfall causes flash floods and landslides, isolating communities. It is subject to about three cyclones per year, along with New Caledonia.

In 2015, during an El Nino season, 95% of crops in affected areas were wiped out; winds and water destroyed 70% of health care facilities and 50% of schools in Vanuatu and wreaked havoc on Fiji, the Solomon Islands and Tuvalu, among others.

But preparing for disaster is becoming more complicated by the year. Money for preemptive action has typically been harder to come by than funding to clean up and rebuild afterwards, according to Jennifer Stewart, Pacific Climate and Resilience Adviser for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

It can be a challenge to prepare communities for a problem that may not occur.

But Stewart, who’s based in Vanuatu, said last year marked a change. The Red Cross was able to take preemptive measures in response to weather forecasts to help reinforce homes, evacuate 21,000 people from coastal communities and ensure relief supplies were in place before the cyclone even hit. It also prepared Tuvalu for a drought with similar methods.

Disaster preparedness has become more complex because of a range of disparate effects within single countries. For example, while a season of drought is expected for Vanuatu’s south, heavy rain is slated for the north, which is also expected in the Cook Islands, Stewart said.

That means countries will need the capacity to respond to contrasting disasters at the same time.

With climate change, long-term weather predictions are becoming more crucial to allow time to prepare.

“There needs to be multiple levels of preparations for concurrent and compounding disasters,” Stewart said.

Some are predicting that in the Pacific, there will be fewer periods of calm between ENSO extremes. That means “there’s not this opportunity for recovery or preparations,” she said.

Recovery from disasters, such as when Super Typhoon Yutu hit the Mariana Islands in 2018, is going to become harder as climate change develops and reprieve is rare. Anita Hofschneider/Civil Beat

Better Predicting The Worsening Future

Improved forecasting would greatly benefit the Pacific. While climate change models have become more accurate on a larger scale, technological improvements also have led to more detailed regional models.

A recently published Yale study on El Nino found that another metric could be added to long-range forecasters’ arsenals: ocean acidity.

The study, using information from the Pliocene and Miocene eras as far back as 6 million years, provided a better understanding of the warmer world expected in the next 100 years, which could be similar to those ancient climates.

In a recent article, Stuecker discussed the potential effects of climate change on water temperatures and conditions in the eastern Pacific. Modeling suggests the eastern Pacific will heat faster than the west.

Stuecker’s interpretation of the research indicates that changes in the east, even in the absence of El Nino, will lead to “more El Nino-like conditions.”

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